¡Hola! If you’ve been learning Spanish for some time, you’ve probably discovered that the dictionary isn’t always reliable when it comes to translating what you want to say. For years, I used the word felpudo to describe a door mat, simply because it was the only translation my dictionary gave for the word. It wasn’t until I heard the expression mover el tapete (to feel emotions of attraction or desire for someone) that I realized that tapete, and not felpudo, is the more common way of saying “door mat” in much of Latin America. A more grievous example is coger, the word which dictionaries often give for the verbs “to pick up,” “to take” or “to grab”. This works in Spain and the Caribbean but definitely not in mainland Latin America, where it is slang for having sexual relations. Today I’d like to dig a bit deeper than the dictionary and present several alternatives to coger which can be used anywhere and with relative safety:
Recoger: For whatever reason, if you take coger and add -re to it, it ceases to be a dirty word. The verb recoger is used in much the same way as our verbal phrase “to pick up something or someone.” Say you left your suit at the cleaners and need to pick it up at 5:00. You could say: “Voy a pasar por la tintorería a las cinco para recoger un traje.” Or if you plan to pick someone up from a particular location you might inform him or her: “Te recojo a las ocho.”
Recoger also works for gathering or collecting items or information. If you are doing a fundraiser for a certain organization, you might say: “Estoy recogiendo fondos para mi organización.” The synonym recolectar can be used here as well: “Estoy recolectando fondos para mi organización. If you are collecting information, you can something like say: “Estoy recogiendo datos para mi proyecto.” In this instance, the verb recabar is a close synonym and can be used instead: “Estoy recabando datos para mi proyecto.”
Agarrar: When coger means “to grab a hold of something,” then the best substitute word is agarrar. You may hear the expression “¡Agárrense!” which means “Hold on tight!” and is commonly shouted by Latin American bus drivers. If someone asks you to grab an item, such as a box on the floor, he or she might say: “Agárrala.”
In Mexico, agarrar is a close synonym of tomar and is used in all sorts of wild contexts. The phrase “El viento está agarrando fuerza” means that “The wind is getting stronger” or, more literally, “taking force.” The slangy question “¿Agarraste la onda?” means “Did you understand?” or, translated word-for-word, “Did you catch the wave?” To take a flight is agarrar un vuelo and to wander aimlessly on the street is agarrar la calle. To start a chat with someone is agarrar la plática and to obtain cell phone signal is agarrar la señal. Once a Mexican friend told me, “Espero que la crisis no nos agarre de dormidos,” referring to the state of the economy at the time.
As best I can tell, agarrar is universally understood in the sense of “to grab”, but only in Mexico and perhaps a few neighboring countries does it take on such a wide range of figurative meanings. In Spain people simply use coger for all these expressions, substituting their own slang words for onda, plática and so on.
Tomar: Tomar is probably your best bet when translating “to take” in the sense of taking some form of transportation somewhere: “Hay que tomar un autobús para llegar al estadío.” Like agarrar, it is also a useful substitute for grabbing something: “Toma la caja, por favor.” The meanings of this verb, however, go much further than coger and a merit a whole separate article. There is one danger area, however, which I want to point out: tomar, like coger in Spain, is used to describe taking transportation but not for taking someone somewhere. You cannot say, for instance, “Te voy a tomar a la playa.” The correct verb here is llevar.
Recopilar: This verb translates as “to gather” and often refers to papers or documents, but can also refer to spoken information:
- “He recopilado todos los documentos que necesito para tramitar el pasaporte.”
- “Mañana volvemos a analizar todo lo que hemos recopilado en esta conversación.”
It is also a close synonym of recoger but has a narrower scope. I can’t, for instance, “recopilarte de la escuela” but I can “recogerte.” Use recopilar when referring specifically to the act of gathering items, documents or data.
All of the foregoing verbs exist in Castillan Spanish, but if you happen to be in Spain (or Cuba or Puerto Rico), you can use coger without fear. Elsewhere, its mileage varies and, especially in Mexico and Argentina, you should absolutely avoid it unless drinking with buddies and describing your exploits. Become familiar with the alternatives and you’ll discover that Latin American Spanish isn’t poorer for assigning such a raunchy meaning to coger, but rather richer for devising so many creative ways of avoiding it.
Espero que hayas agarrado la onda… ¡suerte!